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  • Retro: The Culture of Revival
  • Kimberly J. Lau
Retro: The Culture of Revival. By Elizabeth E. Guffey. (London: Reaktion Books, 2006. Pp. 188, introduction, epilogue, references, select bibliography and filmography, acknowledgments, photo acknowledgments.)

In Retro: The Culture of Revival, art historian Elizabeth E. Guffey seeks to distinguish retro—as the culture of recent revival—from other revivalist movements that draw inspiration from more distant pasts. She begins by offering a brief gloss of some of the current usages and meanings [End Page 336] of the term: a synonym for old, old-fashioned, timeless, or classic; a reference to mid-century American design, fashion, and material and popular culture; a conservative political and ideological position; technological obsolescence, and, in some cases, the fascination with outmoded technologies. Unfortunately, Guffey never really takes up any of these meanings or cultural movements, several of which have become quite common in both the American vernacular as well as in contemporary cultural productions; instead, she focuses on what she deems retro's "most potent connotation":

"[R]etro" suggests a fundamental shift in the popular relationship with the past. Beyond presenting older forms with an Indian summer of novelty, "retro" ignores remote lore and focuses on the recent past. . . . Half-ironic, half-longing, "retro" considers the recent past with an unsentimental nostalgia. It is unconcerned with the sanctity of tradition or reinforcing social values; indeed, it often insinuates a form of subversion while side-stepping historical accuracy. . . . Retro quotes styles from the past, but applies them in anomalous settings; it regards the past from a bemused distance, its dark humour re-mixing popular mid-century drinks and serving them up as "atomic cocktails." . . . [R]etro eludes the positivist progressivism that inflected the "Modern" era. Even more fundamentally, it gently nudges us away from older ideas of "Modernity" and towards an uncharted future.

(pp. 11-2)

I quote at length here for two reasons. First, this definition contains the core of Guffey's project—to examine retro as a "non-historical way of knowing the past" and to understand the "significance of such revivalism" (p. 20). Second, it demonstrates one of the most disappointing aspects of Retro: The Culture of Revival, specifically, Guffey's tendency to make claims that seem to flirt with profound theoretical and interpretive insight, hinting at rich discussions that turn out to be ends in themselves.

Central to the book's introductory chapter, this passage leads the reader to believe that the remainder of the text will delve into these themes, enlightening readers as to how and why retro shifts our relationship to the past, how and why it is subversive, and how and why it moves us away from modernity and toward an "uncharted future." Regrettably, however, Guffey's investigations generally remain at the level of this passage, an especially frustrating tendency, given the truly interesting nature of her material, as well as her assertions. How does retro's "half-longing" relate to its "unsentimental nostalgia," for instance? Is it the "half-iron[y]" that makes retro's nostalgia unsentimental? Is it the fact that retro is only "half-longing"? What do these descriptors actually mean, and how do they "shift the popular relationship to the past" if people are serving up mid-century drinks as "atomic cocktails," a name derived from actual drinks of the 1960s? In what ways, specifically, is such a revival unsentimental nostalgia, bemused distance, and a nudge toward an uncharted future? I am willing to be convinced that retro might be all of these things, but Guffey has not taken the time to lay out the complex intricacies of her assertions in a way that might support them.

As Guffey's initial definition of retro suggests, her project revolves around deeply engaging questions concerning the relationship between retro and the past, as well as between retro revival and broader constructs like history, (post)modernity, and progress. Again, however, these questions tend to remain largely implicit and/or unexplored because of Guffey's tendency to draw premature conclusions rather than opening up her material, both primary and secondary, to more complicated, undoubtedly messy, but ultimately productive theoretical readings and cultural analyses and interpretations. For instance, Guffey's...


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pp. 336-338
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